Not all years are remarkable, but 2008 certainly was.
In that year we watched in trepidation as Lehman Brothers and other financial institutions collapsed, triggering the GFC.
The nation paused as Kevin Rudd delivered the historic apology to the Stolen Generations.
And many of us celebrated as Barack Obama made history as the first African American to be elected President of the United States of America.
It is no wonder, perhaps, that one world event sidled past largely uncommented upon.
In 2008, which is also when I was serving as the nation’s first ever Infrastructure Minister, the World Bank confirmed that for the first time ever, the world’s population tipped over to become more urban than rural…
A trajectory that is significant because one decade on it has surged ahead.
Indeed, the world is on track to become 70 percent urban by 2050.
Countries around the world are grappling with this rapid urbanisation.
Here in Australia, all of our capital cities are projected to experience a significant rise in urban population between now and 2031.
Projections are that by then, the population of our four largest capitals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – will have increased by 46 percent.
Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Darwin are expected to grow by nearly 30 percent.
Many of our cities are already feeling the pinch of urbanisation.
Urban sprawl, congested roads, overcrowded public transport, declining housing affordability and an unequal distribution of employment opportunities are just a few of the challenges experienced every day by people living in our cities.
To make matters worse, these factors combined have taken a toll on our natural environment.
And, at the same time, they also pose a threat to public health through an increase in pollution and the subsequent loss of green space as a result of urban development.
On the one hand, cities are the engine room of our nation’s economy, places of opportunity and hope for many people seeking prosperity and advancement.
But on the other hand, our cities have both an impact on climate change, which in turn impacts on our cities.
Cities may cover less than two per cent of the earth’s surface; however they consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 percent of all carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
And that’s why greening our cities goes beyond the aesthetic.
It is an absolutely fundamental part of our response as a nation to the challenge of climate change.
Yet as urbanist Jane Jacobs said:
“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans”…
A good reminder that in our haste to respond to a growing urban population we cannot forget those communities that already exist.
After all, these people will be the most impacted by any change.
This is why the theme of today’s conference – energising communities – is so important.
The fact is that without all of us, our local communities included, working together towards greener cities, achieving this goal becomes so much harder.
Just these last few weeks there has been a great deal of media coverage about liveability in our major cities following the release of the Infrastructure Australia ‘Future Cities’ report.
Here in Melbourne, The Age has looked at the challenge of the daily commute for people living in outer suburbs.
In Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald has canvassed reasons why people leave the city, with their research revealing that locals are moving to other parts of Australia.
This in itself is not a bad thing.
Indeed, growing our regional cities must be part of any national strategy to accommodate an increasing population and ensure a more equal distribution of the economic dividends from this growth.
However, one researcher for the SMH described this phenomenon as such:
“Sydneysiders as they move out of this place haven’t given up on city living, they’ve just given up on this city.”
Now this is of concern. Real concern.
The fact is our cities are in a state of change and how we respond will make all the difference.
It’s a serious responsibility, but also a unique opportunity for local councils, policy makers and industry to leave their mark and create a positive legacy.
So people don’t think that moving away from cities like Sydney or Melbourne is the only way to have true quality of life.
Best practice must be at the heart of any strategy.
We need to make sure that development in our inner and outer suburbs reflects an understanding of how people live.
This means well placed development that incorporates access to amenities like public transport so that people can get to work as well as parks and sporting facilities for kids so they can be active and healthy.
It means development that has thought about local road networks and the impact additional traffic might have on an area.
And, above all, it means development that does not seek to replace what is special in a community, but rather preserve and enhance it.
So that we create places that cultivate social cohesion and promote opportunities for neighbours to come together.
Indeed, as Jan Gehl said:
“Only architecture that considers human scale and interaction is successful architecture.”
Developers need to show they understand the area in which they seek to build or otherwise community dissatisfaction and resistance will continue to be an issue.
It’s true that we need to have a mature, whole of society discussion about how we manage growth.
But we can’t put problems down to the NIMBY effect alone, and I have read a number of recent opinion pieces in this vein, including one from the Grattan Institute which said:
“Opposition to development is rising again. Unless today’s generation of politicians stares down the NIMBYs, Sydney will repeat the mistakes of the past, and housing affordability will get worse.”
My concern is that comments such as these puts all the responsibility on existing residents to change their behaviour, without also looking at the need for the developer to work with communities and local councils to achieve genuinely good outcomes.
It also disregards the sense of pride people have in place and their community which, if anything, we should be looking to harness as we seek to shape future neighbourhoods.
And it ignores the role state and federal governments can play in making sure supporting infrastructure is in place – particularly in instances where growth corridors are being driven by the government.
There are many examples where development has been done well.
Harold Park in Sydney’s inner west is one such place.
An old racetrack and tramshed, the latter of which had fallen into disrepair.
Mirvac, by working with the councils and local community, has revitalised the site which today features well designed, medium-density housing in tree-lined streets.
The Tramsheds are now home to restaurants and cafes, with the nearby Jubilee Park giving people space to exercise and catch up with friends and family.
This same company, Mirvac, has experienced the flipside of this with its initial plans to build 28-storey towers in Marrickville, where nothing of the kind exists and has attracted widespread community protests.
In what has been a public relations debacle every street in south Marrickville has corflute posters which say ‘Marrickville not Mirvacville’.
I’m pleased that they are now reassessing their plans and looking to involve the community more closely in any future proposal.
It’s simple – working with people is the best way to get good outcomes.
GREENING OUR CITIES
But there are lots of ways to make our cities more liveable and research suggests greening them is key.
In addition to combatting some of the worst effects of climate change, green cities can make people happier and healthier.
Achieving this, of course, goes beyond just a bricks and mortar approach.
I was pleased to see a focus on green and blue networks in the Western Sydney City Deal.
As part of this a ‘blue and green grid’ will ensure existing waterways across the Hawkesbury catchment area are protected and places of amenity.
Urban waterways have so much potential, yet too often are underutilised.
Recently, Labor announced we would invest in the restoration of urban rivers and corridors in Merri Creek, Darebin Creek and the surrounding catchment area.
In my own electorate, the Cooks River, which winds its way through the inner west, benefited from investment when we were last in Government.
While there is still a way to go, cleaning up the river has transformed the area into a place of recreation and natural beauty.
And of course, when it comes to energising communities, local projects such as urban waterways and parks are a great place to start.
Indeed, many groups already exist that are dedicated to the protection of the natural environment in their urban areas.
Around the world there are a number of innovative ideas aimed at bringing nature into the built space.
For instance in Berlin, at the old Tempelhof airport site, urban farms give people living in nearby apartments a chance to tend their own allotment and mingle with others in their neighbourhood.
It’s a trend that has caught on.
Today Europe’s biggest urban farm can be found on the rooftop of a concrete building in The Hague that is also home to a fish farm.
Vertical forests in Milan, Singapore and a number of other cities, including Central Park in Sydney, act as a sponge, absorbing and purifying water before it is reused.
Community gardens are multiplying in Australian suburbs. In my local community, Marrickville West Public School has a community garden tended lovingly by volunteers, which provides both fresh food for local residents and educational benefits for the students.
Renewables, too, are playing an important role.
In just the last three years the number of cities around the world sourcing more than 70 per cent of their power from renewables has more than doubled to 100.
Smart technology is also enabling greener cities.
It plays a dual role; maximising the potential of pre-existing assets while identifying new opportunities. Infrastructure is an important beneficiary of this.
It was Shakespeare who wrote:
“What is the city but the people?”
Our cities are diverse, complex places steeped in their own history.
Each neighbourhood recognised for its own character.
To ensure our cities are productive, sustainable and liveable we must work with people, energising communities, to achieve the best possible outcomes.
And as our cities continue to grow in size, we must ensure they are places of sustainability, incorporating best practice into their design.
Greening our cities must be at the heart of our strategy when it comes to dealing with the effects of climate change ensuring that, at the same time, we don’t leave our citizens behind.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.